The rolling hills, lush meadows, and verdant woodlands at Rock Hill Farm in Willistown be offering glimpses of the previous.
They’re additionally the focal point of a fight concerning the long run — now not best of Willistown and Chester County, however of once-rural, suburbanizing communities in different collar counties of Philadelphia, the place bucolic vistas lengthy valuable by way of locals are giving option to McMansions and Wawas.
“Those massive tracts of undeveloped land, those heritage landscapes? After they’re long past, they’re long past,” stated Pennsylvania State Sen. Carolyn T. Comitta, a Chester County Democrat.
Lengthy owned by way of a conservation-minded native family members, Rock Hill Farm was once bought for $25.4 million remaining December by way of the high-profile developer and businessman J. Brian O’Neill, who is looking for approval to construct as many as 22 luxurious homes on parts of the 246-acre assets.
Willistown’s Making plans Fee is ready to vote on his subdivision software Wednesday; if licensed, the plan will be scheduled for a overview and vote by way of the township’s Board of Supervisors. For the reason that software does now not request exemptions from Willistown’s zoning laws, the developer may be capable of construct the houses by-right.
However supporters of a marketing campaign referred to as Save Rock Hill Farm — who quantity 350 and counting, in line with organizers — stated they need to stave off a construction they consider will inevitably harm the surroundings, persona, and high quality of existence in Willistown and past.
“We’re simply citizens of Willistown, Easttown and neighboring communities who’re keen about retaining some great benefits of open house for the general public at massive,” stated Les Haggett, a pace-setter of the gang whose house in Easttown is throughout South Valley Highway from the O’Neill assets. The crowd has disbursed greater than 500 “Save Rock Hill Farm” indicators and greater than 100 matching T-shirts.
Haggett stated that even supposing Rock Hill has lengthy been in non-public arms, its open meadows, woods, and waterways are an area landmark “that we could the surroundings breathe.” He and others within the team would really like the valuables to grow to be publicly out there open house and indicate that its expanses of undeveloped greenery and surroundings already visually connects Willistown’s public Ockehocking and Kirkwood preserves.
“Open house we could folks in,” Haggett stated. “Building of this nature helps to keep most of the people out. ”
He and others stated it’s obscure why a township that has supported land conservation for the reason that Eighties would imagine a plan to construct on one among it biggest ultimate rural homes. They additionally indicate that Rock Hill accommodates habitats for birds and different flora and fauna.
The farm features a 10-bedroom primary space inbuilt 1900, along side a number of smaller homes, barns, and different constructions. The land is house as neatly to a Crum Creek department that empties right into a reservoir that gives consuming water to Delaware County citizens.
“We moved right here from the decrease Primary Line as a result of we consider in open house,” stated Michele Cruise, who along with her husband, Mike, has lived in Willistown since 2000.
O’Neill and Edmund J. Campbell Jr., the King of Prussia legal professional representing the developer ahead of the making plans fee, declined to remark. Participants of the Willistown Making plans Fee and Board of Supervisors additionally didn’t reply to requests for remark.
In a July 7 letter, Campbell offered to the fee 3 possible approaches to creating the valuables at South Valley, White Horse, and Grubb Roads.
The primary proposal is for by-right building of 5 homes at the White Horse segment, with 17 further homes to be built on a brand new cul-de-sac within the assets’s 100-acre japanese portion. The developer would retain the precise to one after the other search approval for extra single-family residential construction close to the present primary space at the farm’s 122-acre western portion.
Another described within the letter contains building of a unmarried house within the White Horse segment and 20 extra within the japanese portion. A 2d choice requires building of 13 homes within the japanese portion and buy of a $12.5 million conservation easement by way of a 3rd celebration to completely keep about 75% of all of the assets.
“Our desire is to look land in rural spaces completely preserved as open house,” Brian N. O’Leary, govt director of the Chester County Making plans Fee, stated in an e-mail. An advisory frame, the county fee is reviewing O’Neill’s proposals.
“When [total preservation] isn’t possible … we propose that properties be clustered at the side of important open house preservation,” he stated within the e-mail, and described proposals to take action as “typically constant” with the county’s complete plan.
There are 147,000 preserved acres in Chester County, representing 30.2% of its general land house. Willistown had 4,400 acres, or 38% of its land house, preserved, on the finish of remaining yr.
“In the event you’re going to have construction,” O’Leary stated later right through an interview from his place of business, “then what they [O’Neill’s company] are proposing is beautiful just right.”
Emerging actual property values have persevered to spur the sale and subdivision of former estates and upscale farm homes, in particular in Primary Line communities.
In June, for example, Decrease Merion Township opted to permit the Linden Hill property to be subdivided into 5 development quite a bit.
Whilst upper prices can complicate land preservation efforts, there were notable contemporary successes: In April, Westtown Township moved to purchase 208 acres of Crebilly Farm for $20.8 million; plans name for the land to grow to be a park.
In the meantime, the 209-acre Kirkwood Farm assets on Windfall Highway in Willistown was once indexed on the market remaining iciness in commercials touting its “unending perspectives” and different attributes.
“To the most efficient of our working out, the valuables is beneath an settlement of sale with a personal purchaser, and we’re hopeful to have a just right conservation end result,” stated Kate Etherington, govt director of the Willistown Conservation Consider.
Based in 1996, the agree with makes use of conservation easements and different equipment to give protection to environmentally delicate and another way important land in and round Willistown from construction by way of respecting the rights of, and dealing with, assets homeowners.
The agree with has helped preserve 7,500 acres within the headwaters of the Crum, Ridley, and Darby Creeks.
“As for Rock Hill,” Etherington stated, “we proceed to have conversations with the present proprietor.”
Passion in keeping up historical, environmentally delicate, or another way significant native puts and landscapes is not anything new in and round Willistown.
The hamlets of Ancient Sugartown and the White Horse Ancient District draw in guests. The general public can get admission to strolling trails on 10 websites which were safe from construction. And a e-book about Willistown historical past titled Acres of Quakers, printed in 2006 by way of the township ancient fee, ran to 685 pages — and ended within the yr 1900.
Save Rock Hill Farm has an energetic presence on Fb and in different places on social media, and individuals comparable to Haggett and Cruise described themselves as newbies drawn into activism as a result of the stakes concerned.
“Exchange is just right in numerous techniques”, stated Rachel Breskman, a member who grew up in Willistown. “However with Rock Hill Farm the [proposed] trade is damaging. Now not productive.”
Comitta, who serves as minority chair of the Pennsylvania Senate’s environmental assets and effort committee, saluted the grassroots effort.
Land conservation “is an excessively sophisticated puzzle” that takes time to get appropriate, she stated.
“It’s now not linear and it’s now not simple. However it may be accomplished,” Comitta stated.
“Relating to Rock Hill Farm, I consider it will have to be accomplished.”